The Conservative spin machine has gone into overdrive ahead of the publication of the Keogh report into failings at 14 NHS trusts in a desperate attempt to pin the blame on the last Labour government. In an abandonment of the consensual approach adopted by David Cameron after the Francis report into Mid-Staffs, when he declared that the government would not "blame the last Secretary of State for Health" or "seek scapegoats", the Tories have taken aim at shadow health secretary Andy Burnham, the man responsible for the NHS from 2009-10, briefing the press over the weekend that his position is now untenable.
In an letter published in today's Telegraph, 10 Conservative MPs, undoubtedly with the tacit encouragement of Downing Street, openly call for his resignation. They write:
It is clear now that the last Labour government oversaw thousands of unnecessary deaths in our NHS Hospitals and failed to expose or confront these care scandals. The patients we represent were betrayed. It would be an outrage if Andy Burnham were ever to return to the role of secretary of state for health.
In response to this declaration of political war, Burnham has come out fighting. Writing in the Telegraph, he points out several inconvenient truths that will almost certainly be lost in the media's coverage of the report today.
Far from seeking to 'bury bad news', as the Conservatives allege, Burnham notes that "before the last Election, I took action in respect of Basildon and Tameside and after ordering an in-depth review of all hospitals in England, I left in place warnings over five of the 14". In doing so, as less partisan papers reported at the weekend, he overruled health officials determined to keep the failings from the front pages.
Burnham goes on to point out that the criteria for inclusion in the Keogh report "was hospitals with a high mortality ratio in 2011 and 2012 – not 2005" (after Labour had left office, in other words) and that "six of the 14 now have a higher mortality rate than in the last year of the last Government."
In addition, he notes that there has been "a major deterioration" in A&E waiting times at the hospitals in question, with all 14 in breach of the government’s 4-hour A&E target, and "severe cuts to staffing levels", identified by the Francis report as one of the main causes of the Stafford scandal.
With the Tories trailing Labour by 30 points on the NHS, their desire to hold the last government responsible for any failings, as they done so successfully in the case of the economy, is understandable. But not only is it one they would be wise to resist, as Rachel Sylvester argues in today's Times (the public would rather politicians spent their fixing the problems with the NHS than arguing over which party is to blame), this line of attack is also entirely unmerited by the facts. If Burnham can derive any consolation from the events of the last 48 hours, it is that this smear campaign will almost certainly backfire.